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SEEN UP NORTH: Honours for cancer expert

Tony Best

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When Canada’s Governor General mulled over the long list of deserving souls for one of the nation’s highest honours, one name stood head and shoulders above most.
Dr Anthony “Tony” Fields was that name – given at birth and later at a christening in Barbados to the son of Vernon Fields, a civil servant, and his wife Marjorie, a teacher at Queen’s College.
Last year a citation, a symbol of the Bajan’s investiture into the highly prestigious Order of Canada, was presented to Professor Fields at a ceremony in Ottawa. But it didn’t tell the full story of his contribution to the health of a nation that’s a global leader in human development.
It simply read: “Anthony (Tony) Fields, CM, Edmonton Alberta, for his contributions to cancer treatment, diagnosis and research in Alberta as a professor and administrator.”
Fields freely admits that the honour caught him by surprise.
“It’s a great honour which I appreciate,” he told the SUNDAY SUN from his home in Edmonton where he has lived, practised, taught and otherwise made his mark as one of the country’s leading cancer experts.
“A lot of my life was spent contributing to expert cancer treatment.”
The route the Bajan has travelled to reach his pre-eminent position today as one of Canada’s leading oncologists began at elementary school and later Harrison College several decades ago.
It has taken him to Britain’s Cambridge University where he studied natural sciences after winning a Barbados scholarship in 1961. Next was the University of Alberta to be trained as a physician.
Then there was a stint at St Michael’s Hospital and the Princess Margaret Hospital, branches of the University of Toronto in Ontario.
By 1980, he was a member of the faculty of the University of Alberta and joined the medical staff of Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute.
In the next 30-plus years, Professor Fields taught medical students and served in a variety of top administrative positions in several cancer care institutions in Alberta, including director of the Cross Care Cancer Institute and vice-president of Medical Affairs and Community Oncology at the Alberta Cancer Board, a position he held for a decade until 2009.
“Mine has been a long and winding career with many twists and turns,” he said.
But that’s not all. He served in a variety of teaching positions at the University of Alberta, such as professor and acting chairman of the Department of Oncology and head of the Faculty of Medicine’s Division of Medical Oncology in the 1980s and 1990s.
Those positions offer a mere glimpse into his illustrious career in Canada.
The Bajan is a past president and chairman of the board of directors of Canada’s National Cancer Institute and the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance. He has also served on the boards of the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Oncology Society and the Canadian Association of Provincial Cancer Agencies.
As if those roles weren’t enough, Fields chaired the board of directors of the Health Quality Council of Alberta last year and heads the Expert Review Committee of the Pan-Canadian Oncology Review.
There’s even more.
“I have spearheaded the development of Alberta’s network of community cancer centres and community oncology programmes and that gave me considerable opportunities to extend cancer care to people at all levels,” he said.
“If a community or a country, such as Barbados, wants to reduce the burden cancer imposes on patients, then it must concentrate on cancer control.”
And to achieve that goal, there must be emphasis on screening, patient services and end of life care, he explained.
“I was involved in every aspect of cancer control in Alberta,” he pointed out.
In the process, he has helped to save thousands of women’s lives through the early development and expansion of breast cancer screening programmes in Alberta and across Canada.
“Treatment is but one dimension of cancer control,” said the professor.
“Much of what you do comes down to diagnosing and treating cancer.”
Interestingly, the word “cure” is in his vocabulary and for good reason when it comes to cancer.
“About 95 per cent of the people in Canada with skin cancer are cured in Canada,” he said.
“Yes, lung cancer is highly lethal but we are curing about half of the patients suffering from serious cancers. Diagnosing cancer at an early stage is very important and that enables treatment to begin as early as possible.”
Despite the advances in treatment and the relatively high rate of cure, Fields described the disease as Canada’s public enemy No.1.
Fields freely admits he would have laughed if someone in Barbados had suggested to him in the 1950s and 1960s that he was destined to become a highly recognized cancer expert in Canada.
“Yes, I would have laughed,” said the man who once taught chemistry and mathematics at Queen’s College before going to Canada to study medicine.